Remembering Paul M. A. Linebarger, who was Cordwainer
Smith: A Daughter's Memories
Cordwainer Smith was born Paul Myron Anthony
Linebarger, on July 11, 1913, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His
parents were living overseas during his mother's
pregnancy, and his father insisted that the baby be born
in the United States, so he would be eligible to become
president of the United States.
I never met my grandfather—he died before I was born—but I
heard a lot of family tales about him. A lawyer, he became a
judge in the Philippines when they were still United States
territory, and while there he decided that Dr. Sun Yat Sen
needed a western advisor. So off he went to China and became
Another story that I heard my father tell was of his
father's deathbed. "Paul," he said, "I don't think I have any
illegitimate children, but if any turn up, please be generous
with them." None ever did.
So my father grew up in a variety of places: Washington,
D.C., the German resort of Baden Baden, and China come to mind
but there were probably other places too. He was the older of
When he was six, he lost the sight of one eye in an
accident. This added to his sense of being different,
and likely was been the beginning of the theme of pain and
suffering that ran through his life and writing. I have a
photocopy of a postcard that Dr. Sun Yat Sen sent my father not
long after my father lost his vision in one eye, in an
26/3/20 Dear Paul: I am very sorry to hear of the
accident to your eye. You must show what a brave boy you
are by keeping cheerful always. This will help you to
recover quicker. Sun Yat Sen
The loss of his eye also resulted in this story
that I remember him telling: when he was in his teens, he
was living in a large house in China with his parents and
younger brother Wentworth. His father was away on one of
his many trips, and the family was experiencing petty
theft in the house.
So Paul assembled the servants and said to them, "We have
been having problems with things disappearing. Of course, none
of you would ever take anything, but I want you to know that I
am putting the evil eye on whoever takes anything.."
He had been holding a spare glass eye in his mouth, in one
cheek, and he moved it around so it was protruding from his
lips. He then walked solemnly from room to room, servants
following. Nothing was ever stolen from the house after
Skipping ahead... he and my mother, Margaret Snow, were
married in 1939. Here is a bit from my mother's 1938
DAMNATION NIGHT-a story suggested by Paul (he wants me
to write it but I doubt I ever could). The story is about a
group of people banded together for the purpose of murder
as a sport and pleasure. Motivation? Perhaps an obscurely
recognized hunger for living, for vitality, for the feeling
of lust and life and adventure, an adolescent kind of
desire for "making something happen." Also, perhaps an
enormous infinitely destructive boredom that makes
existence a mockery of life? Also perhaps the value of
danger as a "tonic"....
They had intended to have children, but it wasn't
until the start of World War II that they decided it was time.
I was born in 1942, conceived a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.
(When I was about 12, my father told me that he had felt
something beyond the ordinary at the moment of my conception.
At that age, I was very uncomfortable hearing this, but later I
was glad to know this.)
He was in the army, in China and India. Here's a story from
that era that impressed me as a child: One warm night in China,
he was sitting in an outhouse. It was a two-seater, and as he
idly glanced at the other open seat, he noticed little
luminescent lights under the seat. He assumed they were
fireflies. Then he heard the roar of trucks from not far
away... turned out the outhouse was perched on a cliff, and the
lights he saw were from military conveys on the main highway
far below, more or less directly below his seat!
My first memory of him is of his return to
Washington, D.C. after World War II. I would have been
about three, and I remember a very tall man amidst the
crowds of people at Washington's Union Station. I remember
the background noise of the trains, and that he gave me a
Luckily, I don't remember another early event. My mother
told me that when the war ended, he wanted to give me a
spanking so that I would always remember the end of the war.
Mom didn't agree with that approach to child-rearing, and the
spanking didn't happen.
Overall I recall him as a loving, attentive, and distinctly
unusual father. My sister was born in 1947, and my parents
divorced two years later. I was in third grade when my father
was in Korea. He was always very diligent about sending
postcards to my sister and me, and I can still remember my
indignation when I received one asking, "How is my big second
When I was nine, my sister and I started spending a couple
of months every summer with my father and our new stepmother,
The first year (1952), we went to Mexico. My
father's tales overwhelmed me when he talked about the
young maidens sacrificed in the well at Chichen Itza, or
when he showed us the murals of Diego Rivera in Mexico
City, huge walls full of agony and suffering. From that
summer onward, the themes of suffering and human cruelty
became central issues in my own life — inevitably
separating me from my "normal" suburban friends.
My father was very much a cold warrior. During that Mexican
summer of 1952, he wasn't just on a family jaunt. I didn't know
until Genevieve told me after he died that he had also been
working for the CIA on the side, that summer and through many
of the years that he was a professor at the School of Advanced
International Studies in Washington, D.C.
So in 1952, he was working in Mexico City with Howard Hunt,
later of Watergate fame. The Russian embassy was having a
party, and Daddy (I think Hunt too) got ahold of an invitation.
They had many extra copies made and distributed, so that far
too many people arrived at the party, and the Russians were
embarrassed. A little-known fact of the cold war.
Writing Science Fiction
I have quite a few memories of his writing science fiction.
It was fun for him, something he did on the side. He would tell
me with some glee what some obscure reference meant... too bad
I don't remember most of those. I do remember his saying that
his story title "Drunkboat" was from the French poem, "Bateau
Ivre," by Rimbaud.
I asked him why he didn't want people to know that he was
Cordwainer Smith. As I remember it, he said he didn't want to
be bothered by fans. Also, he thought it might make some of his
professional colleagues think less of him.
I remember a couple of stories he used to tell about himself
in Hong Kong. He spent a lot of time there, and had most of his
suits, shirts, and ties custom-made by the same tailor. Once,
at a fitting, the tailor said, "Dr. Linebarger, I have not seen
you for some time. Have you been out of town?"
I was only in Hong Kong once, in 1961, when I was coming
back from a year in Paris and at the Stanford campus in France.
My father arranged for me to meet him, my stepmother Genevieve,
and my younger sister Marcia, in Hong Kong. I had to go to the
dentist but we will mercifully skip over that memory. I did get
a chance to do something I had long wanted to. We had lunch one
day at his favorite restaurant. It had booths, with tall wooden
dividers between them. I had heard this story numerous
Once he and Genevieve were having lunch in this
restaurant, when from the other side of the divider behind
him came the sounds of someone imitating him. He recognized
the voice of one the graduate students who had studied
under him at the School of Advanced International Studies,
back home in Washington, D.C. Quietly he turned around and
gradually raised himself up until his head was sticking
above the partition. The fellow imitating him had his back
to my father and carried on, having no idea why his friends
suddenly became red in the face and very quiet. Finally,
the fellow followed his friends' eyes upward, and was
aghast at what he saw.
When he told this story, my father would always
laugh heartily at this point.
Cuban Missile Crisis
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, I was a
junior at Stanford. One of my friends was totally convinced
that nuclear war was coming any day. I phoned home—something of
a big deal in those days—and Genevieve reassured me that Daddy
thought the crisis would be resolved.
But then I got a letter from him with the disquieting advice
that if any nuclear bombs were dropped anywhere, I should make
my way to Mexico with the American Express card he had supplied
me with. From there, he added, I would be in a better position
to help him and the rest of the family. He had already told me
from time to time that being his daughter meant that I was at
some risk from the KGB.
I was not reassured! But now we know that the world did come
very, very close to nuclear war that month.